Church of God can benefit
from biblical leadership pattern
The writer is pastor of the Churches of God UK, an affiliate of the Churches of God Outreach Ministries.
By James McBride
LINCOLN, England--"I'm a minister." Those words may be spoken with great authority, or in humility. They may be arrogantly handed down from the mount, with no response permitted. Or they may simply be an expression of availability to serve.
The role of minister has been hideously distorted within Christianity, even in the Churches of God.
What is "a minister"? What does the role involve? Is he--or she--someone extra special?
Those deemed to be Church of God ministers come in 57 varieties, ranging from the hugely aggressive and arrogant to people whose purpose and motivation are to quietly serve the brethren. But even among the latter there is much misunderstanding of their role.
Ordination is impressive
The act of ordination to ministry varies from the simple laying on of hands through to the awesome majesty and pomp associated with the enthronement of a pope. It is impressive.
The individual has, usually, been carefully selected after a process of screening. From that moment someone places him on a pedestal.
Such ordination, however, falls short of the biblical model!
Certainly, qualified persons in the New Testament church were set apart for ministry. More accurately, they were set apart for leadership, because every brother and sister in Christ is a minister in the sense of one willing to serve.
Congregations had their overseers and deacons. They were carefully selected (1 Timothy 3) and were responsible to Jesus and their peers and brethren--not to a board or top dog--for how they exercised their pastoral role.
Many Church of God elders, perhaps most, have learned lessons from the past. Brethren are not now subject to the same oppression many once experienced (unless they have chosen to place themselves under the heel of an unreformed group).
However, because of the church culture that's institutionalized in maybe 90-plus percent of today's church (and most readers of The Journal), problems remain.
That ingrained culture instilled a subservience to "the ministry" that remains the backdrop to many congregations.
There's still unthinking acceptance of "what the church says." As a result, the former concept of ministry is perpetuated. The ministry is viewed as different from the rest of us. Given human nature, it too often leads to the leader becoming power hungry. God's way becomes corrupted.
Since the church began, there have been bad elders. The apostle Paul warned of them, as did Jude and Peter and John. The Ephesian assemblies are an example (Acts 20).
Some were intruders--"savage wolves"--who had gained entrance and ravaged God's flock. Others arose from among the church leadership "speaking perverse things" with the intent of gaining a personal following.
And faithful brethren were on occasion driven from the assembly by arrogant self-obsessed leaders (3 John 10). It's unlikely the situation will change much before Christ returns.
Historically, a power-hungry church leadership extended the tentacles of control. The humble bishop--overseer--of the assembly was exalted to high office, and a hierarchy of such offices developed over the ensuing decades.
To enhance the distinction from the ordinary member, office holders (the ordained) were designated as "clergy."
That word signifies someone chosen by lot and properly refers to all the brethren, God's chosen (Ephesians 1:11; 1 Peter 5:3).
Applied to an ordained ministry, it implies a separation from the flock, and this centuries-old false interpretation has been absorbed into the modern Church of God. Servants of the church became its lords (1 Peter 5:3) and, in some churches, classed as the only true "members"!
Another adaptation from the decaying church of the third century is the notion that the church leadership reflected the Old Testament priesthood. The clergy wrongly assumed the Levitical rights, privileges and structure rather than the pattern derived, as did the early Church of God, from the synagogue.
Church leadership in the apostolic church was simple. As the brethren met--usually in private homes--it soon became clear who was suitably gifted for leadership. Such were endowed by Christ through His Spirit with the qualities needed to pastor that flock.
The leader would be accepted by the brethren and publicly acknowledged. The acknowledgment was an appointment and not an "ecclesiastical ordination." It was a public recognition of his role and not a setting apart.
Titus, for example, simply was to "appoint elders in every city" in Crete (Titus 1:5). The modern idea of ordination as understood today is foreign to the New Testament church.
Clearly, since the brethren met in small house churches (see, for example, Romans 16), it was superfluous to appoint several elders to a single congregation. One man was appointed as pastor in each assembly in any one city.
Wrote John Chrysostom (fourth century) on Titus 1:5: "... Everyone should have and mind his own proper cure [parish]; for so the labour would be easier to him, and the people would have more care taken of them since their teacher would not run about to govern many churches."
The notion of a plurality of "overseers and deacons" has reference to appointments to specific service to all the assemblies in a city.
The "church in Philippi," for example, was seen as one church with shared leadership, and with one elder specifically assigned to each assembly.
Thus, in modern terms, all the brethren in, say, New York are "one church" but reside in several congregations, not separate and often competing churches (denominational or independent) of the one God.
Elders, then, were not "clergy" but of the people and remained so. They were a part of the congregation they served and not drafted from elsewhere.
They were biblically literate, humble, qualified. They were not career ministers with security of employment, not salaried, not pensioned. They worked in secular occupations, as did the apostle Paul.
Their role was to prepare the brethren for ministry, to deter wolves, to teach sound doctrine.
The Church of God will benefit from a return to the biblical pattern of leadership.
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